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Sri Lanka bombers on govt payroll; church reopens

COLOMBO: The Islamist extremists behind Sri Lanka’s deadly Easter bombings received funding from state intelligence services, a top Muslim leader told a parliamentary investigation. The comments by Azath Salley, who quit last week as governor of Western Province, added to evidence of massive security failings before the April 21 attacks that killed 258 people. The bombings were led by Zahran Hashim, a radical who broke from the Sri Lanka Thowheeth Jama’ath (SLTJ) to form an extremist group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ).

Salley told the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that he repeatedly told President Maithripala Sirisena to take action against the group. “The defense ministry paid the Thowheeth Jama’ath. The police worked closely with the Thowheeth Jama’ath,” Salley said, according to a transcript of his remarks. Salley said the former government of Mahinda Rajapakse in office until 2015 funded Thowheeth Jama’ath through military intelligence, a practice continued by the new administration.

Salley said that the funding was to spy on other groups. Salley also said that a week before the attacks, he met with top defense officials to warn them about the activities of Islamist radicals and impending dangers. “If the police had taken action on the information I provided at the time, we would have been able to avoid this disaster,” he said. The PSC has already heard from several top defense and police officials that the authorities failed to implement an effective security plan even after receiving precise warnings of an impending attack.

Sirisena sacked his national intelligence chief Sisira Mendis after he told the PSC that the attacks could have been averted. Mendis also said the president had failed to hold regular security meetings to assess the threat from Islamic radicals. His defense secretary and police chief have suggested that the president, who is also defense minister, did not follow proper protocols in dealing with intelligence warnings about the bombings. Sirisena has refused to cooperate with the PSC and told his senior officers not to testify.

However, parliament warned civil servants that they risked up to 10 years in jail if they ignored summons. Broadcasts of proceedings have however been halted. Sirisena has repeatedly denied he was aware of an impending threat. He suspended police chief Pujith Jayasundara and dismissed his top defense official Hemasiri Fernando after the bombings.
Meanwhile, a bombed Catholic Church was re-consecrated yesterday with a prayer for a strong national leader to punish those responsible for the Easter attacks. Speaking at the newly restored St Anthony’s in Colombo, the head of Roman Catholics in Sri Lanka said there were doubts whether the island could pull itself out of crisis after the coordinated suicide bombings.

At least 54 people were killed at the church, where thousands of people – including leading politicians – attended a special trilingual service yesterday. “What we need is a leadership that will work for the country rather than themselves. A leader with a backbone who will not protect the guilty. A leader who is not afraid to punish wrongdoers,” said the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. “There is some doubt, both here and abroad, whether we have a strong leadership that will deliver us from this crisis,” he added.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has publicly apologized for the security lapses that allowed suicide bombers to stage the assaults unchallenged. Ranjith said the Islamist extremists who staged the suicide attacks against three churches and three luxury hotels were misguided youth who will have no place in heaven. “The innocent victims who died while in church are now angels in heaven. Those who carried out the attacks are in the hell of hells,” Ranjith said.

St Anthony’s – which dates back to 1740 – is venerated by non-Catholics too and as its restoration was nearing completion, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced visit on Sunday and paid tribute to all the victims. “I am confident Sri Lanka will rise again,” Modi said on Twitter where he posted photos of himself at the church. “Cowardly acts of terror cannot defeat the spirit of Sri Lanka. India stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka.”

Wickremesinghe said he had discussed with Modi ways to combat militant attacks and counter religious extremism. Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency since the assaults, giving the police and security forces sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects for long periods. The authorities have said they have killed or arrested all those responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks that were blamed on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath and claimed by the Islamic State. – AFP

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